Karla Burns is an American operatic mezzo-soprano and actress who has performed nationally and internationally in opera houses, theatres, and on television. She is notably the first black person, African-American or otherwise, to win the Laurence Olivier Award, Britain's most prestigious award for theatre.
Karla Burns was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas to parents Ira Willie Lee Burns and Catherine Burns. Burns credits her parents for inspiring her musical gifts. Her father was a jazz and gospel pianist and her mother sang spirituals and old hymns at church. Burns attended Wichita State University from which she earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Music. After leaving college, Burns appeared throughout the world in musical and classical theatre productions, operas and revues. Highlights of her career include performances with the Paris Opera, the Teatro Real in Madrid, Cairo Opera, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. She has also appeared in performances at the Metropolitan Opera as Lilly in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and in Raymond Wilding-White's Trio at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Burns is probably best known for her Drama Desk Award winning and Tony Award nominated performance of Queenie in the 1983 Broadway revival of Jerome Kern's Show Boat. The show was brought to Broadway by the Houston Grand Opera. When the show moved to the London stage in 1991, Burns won an Olivier Award for her work in the show. This was the first time a Black person was awarded this prize. The London production was produced by Opera North. Burns again reprised the role of Queenie with Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg, France in 2002.
Burns has also appeared in many regional theater productions including parts in several Shakespeare plays, Bloody Mary in South Pacific, Katisha in The Mikado, Berenice Sadie Brown in The Member of the Wedding and Calpernia in To Kill a Mockingbird among others.
Burns' television credits include the role of Hottie in the 1984 TV movie The Parade with Geraldine Page and the roles of the Duke of Ephesus/Luce in the 1987 PBS broadcast of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. The latter was a live recording from Lincoln Center of the 1987 Broadway revival which was Burns' only other starring role on Broadway. She also made appearances in One of a Kind and True Blue with Robert Earl Jones.
Burns is also known for two one-woman musical shows that she has toured with and occasionally still performs. The first show entitled Hi-Hat-Hattie was written by Larry Parr and examines the life of Hattie McDaniel, America's first Black Oscar winner. McDaniel and Burns' lives have some striking similarities. Both Burns and McDaniel were born in Wichita and both played Queenie in Show Boat. McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Oscar and Burns was the first black actress to win the coveted British Olivier award. They are also both similar in Midwest pioneering spirit. Burns first performed Hi-Hat-Hattie in Wichita in 1994. She went on to perform the role in several other cities including Off-Broadway in New York and the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre in California. She last performed the show in 2004 at Wichita State University. Burns' other one woman show is Boogie with Burns Broadway Revue, a cabaret show, which she performed in various venues up through 2007. In 2008 she had surgery to remove an almost ten pound goiter from her neck. The surgery significantly affected her singing voice and she is currently in the process of regaining her vocal abilities.
Burns recently was returned to Wichita to direct the children of Music Theatre for Young People's production of Hello Dolly alongside director Mike Roark. She now lives in New York but frequently returns to Wichita to visit her mother.
Awards and honors
- Burns received the Kansas Governor's Arts Award in 1991.
- Burns recorded the role of Queenie in EMI/Angel's landmark 1988 recording of Show Boat This is the only recording of the show's complete score with the original 1927 orchestrations and vocal arrangements.
- Burns recorded the role of Hattie in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate with the London Sinfonietta on the 1990 EMI Studio recording.